The grand philosopher of the Commons: in memory of Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to have won a Nobel prize for economics, was most famous for challenging the idea of the “tragedy of the commons”: that in the absence of government intervention, people will overuse shared resources. acschweigert

The grand philosopher of the Commons, Elinor Ostrom, passed away on the 12th June 2012. She was a brilliant, creative polymath; a theoretician of fine precision and great intellectual power; a deviser of masterful empirical studies; and an energetic collaborator and networker. Ostrom posed a formidable intellectual challenge to the fields of economics and the social sciences - and the advocates of central regulation, privatization, and enclosure.

Elinor Ostrom was a distinguished professor at Indiana University. She was both the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, and professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Ostrom was senior research director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. She received a Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. Her Nobel Lecture, entitled Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems, encapsulated the elements of her conceptual framework.

Elinor Ostrom’s theoretical and empirical work on the Commons is of great importance and significance in the fields of economics, natural resource management, law, and the social sciences. Indeed, her research has an important legacy for education, open access, intellectual property, and scholarly communications.

Governing the Commons

In her classic 1990 work, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Elinor Ostrom begins with the reflection: “Hardly a week goes by without a major news story about the threatened destruction of a valuable natural resource.” She notes: “The issues of how best to govern natural resources used by many individuals in common are no more settled in academia than in the world of politics.”

Ostrom provides a critique of three influential models - Garrett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the Commons’, the ‘prisoner’s dilemma game’, and Mancur Olson’s ‘logic of collective action’. She observes that the three models are interesting and powerful because they capture aspects of the problem of free-riding. The models predict that those using common resources will not co-operate to achieve collective benefits.

Nonetheless, Ostrom argues: “What makes these models so dangerous - when they are used metaphorically as the foundation for policy - is that the constraints that are assumed to be fixed for the purpose of analysis are taken on faith as being fixed in empirical settings, unless external authorities change them.”

Ostrom identified key design principles underlying long-term, robust common-pool resource institutions. These principles related to clearly defined boundaries; congruence between rules and local needs and conditions; collective-choice arrangements; monitoring; graduated sanctions; conflict-resolution mechanisms; minimal recognition of rights to organise; and nested enterprises.

Ostrom concluded: “We in the social sciences face as great a challenge in how to address the analysis of common-pool resource problems as do the communities of people who struggle with ways to avoid common-pool resource problems in their day-to-day lives.”

Green from the grassroots: the environment, sustainable development, and climate change

Ostrom took a lively interest in applying her theories to the international debates over the environment, sustainable development, and climate change.

Ostrom has been critical of the intransigence of the United States on the issue of climate change. She lamented: “If only one country in the world tried to solve climate change — even one of the wealthier countries of the world — this would be a grossly inadequate effort.”

Ostrom has supported a multi-layered approach to the issue of climate change: “The advantage of a polycentric approach is that it encourages experimental efforts at multiple levels, as well as the development of methods for assessing the benefits and costs of particular strategies adopted in one type of ecosystem and comparing these with results obtained in other ecosystems.”

Not all are convinced by such an approach. Stephen Gardiner, for instance, in A Perfect Moral Storm, expressed reservations as to whether a Commons approach could adequately address climate change, especially given the technical complexity, political fissures, and global nature of the topic.

On the 12 June 2012, Elinor Ostrom wrote a final op-ed on the Rio+20 Summit entitled, “Green from the Grassroots”. There has been much debate over the draft text of the agreement- with many countries asking for deletions, caveats, and reservations. There has been particular controversy over the principle of common but differentiated responsibility; the green economy and green jobs; intellectual property and technology transfer; and finance.

Ostrom recognised that “inaction in Rio would be disastrous, but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake”. She argued, though: ‘We cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: the oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.“

Ostrom advocated a multi-layered, evolutionary approach to policy-making and maintained that "setting goals can overcome inertia, but everyone must have a stake in establishing them: countries, states, cities, organizations, companies, and people everywhere”.

Ostrom argues: 'What we need are universal sustainable development goals on issues such as energy, food security, sanitation, urban planning, and poverty eradication, while reducing inequality within the planet’s limits.’ She warns: ‘Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system.’

Ostrom’s last words in her op-ed are: ‘Our primary goal must be to take planetary responsibility for this risk, rather than placing in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.’

It is a timely reminder - as Hillary Clinton and the United States delegation heads off to Rio de Janeiro for the summit.

The Knowledge Commons

The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University - founded by Elinor and her husband Vincent Ostrom - was a great catalyst for collaborative and inter-disciplinary work on the commons. David Bollier praises her scholarly warmth and collegality, and community outreach: “Ostrom built a global network of colleagues and a vast literature that explores how people can actually cooperate in managing resources.”

In 2004, Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom hosted a meeting entitled “Workshop on Scholarly Communications as a Commons”. From this initial meeting, Hess and Ostrom concluded that the Knowledge Commons could not be restricted to merely scholarly communication: “It became more and more apparent than any useful study of the users, designers, contributors, and distributors of this commons could not be cordoned off to the domain of the ivory tower.”

With Charlotte Hess, Elinor Ostrom edited the influential 2007 Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. Hess and Ostrom observed that ‘an increasing number of scholars found that the concept of the “commons” helped them to conceptualize new dilemmas they were observing with the rise of distributed, digital information". The pair noted that ’Commons became a buzzword for digital information, which was being enclosed, commodified, and overpatented.‘

The theoretical and practical work of Elinor Ostrom remains influential for intellectual property law, digital libraries, open access publishing, and Commons projects, like the Creative Commons, the Science Commons, the GreenXchange and even the Eco-Patent Commons.

Her philosophy of the Knowledge Commons remains timely, as academics, scholars, and universities rise up against the barriers and strictures of the commercial publishers of scholarly works.

Elinor Ostrom’s legacy to education may well be that the walled gardens of commercial publishers will be torn down and replaced with open access, digital libraries.